Psst, Have You Heard?

The Rich: A New Zealand History by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (Penguin, $34.95)
Listener: 25 May, 1996.

Keywords: Distributional Economics; Political Economy & History;

Is this book anything more than tattle-tale? Significantly it ends with the words”What, above all, would I have done with Felicity Ferret?” Admittedly The Rich does not descend to assisting the semi-literate by putting names in bold: the better schooled may dip into the index of around one thousand names.

Some of the rich will be glad – or annoyed – to be omitted, for the book can make no claim to be comprehensive. Rather Stevan Eldred-Grigg has drawn extensively on a wide range of sources – including the unreliable, the fictitious, and the plain wrong – to give snippets about the doings of the wealthy. The fiction includes a quotation from one of his own novel’s The Shining City used, as if it were fact, for a passionate attack on private schools.

Without references the reader must take this all on trust – or distrust. Those who like high society gossip will appreciate some dammed good stories, but are they true? Ms Ferret is disciplined by the laws of defamation. The dead have no such protection.

To make matters worse, he paragraphs lurch backwards and forwards between decades as though the tale was timeless. There is little distinction between those who became rich through luck, through inheritance, or through talent (including of a criminal kind). Generations of wealthy families are mentioned, as are rich individuals of whose descendants we hear of no more, but there is but no real discussion whether money descends through, or is extinguished in, a couple of generations. The book tries to trace through how sources of wealth change over time, but it is a slight effort.

The study touches on new and old rich, key to understanding Ms Ferret’s voyeurism, but there is no systematic analysis. How does one shift from becoming rich to becoming respectable? There is much sneering at the nouveau riche behind their backs by those who were nouveau riche only a generation earlier. The book could have been a source for such investigations, but reference-less it is of little use.

Especially disappointing is the lack of serious exploration of wealth and political power, of how the rich have influenced, and are influencing, policy out of proportion to their numbers. The flirtation of the gossip columnist is not a substitute for sober analysis.

Instead the book reports the foibles of the rich, especially sexual peccadillos which Eldred-Grigg highlights although the rich are probably no more prone than anyone else. Curiously the study does not give the prominence to conspicuous consumption one might expect, especially the Auckland rich flaunting their affluence is slowly percolating through the country. We have not reached the US excesses described by John Kenneth Galbraith, perhaps only because our rich do not read him.

The book describes a “Great Gatsby” party in which participants dressed in the style. The novel’s author, Scott Fitzgerald once commented “the rich are very different from you and me” to which Earnest Hemmingway replied “yes, they have more money.” That money allows them to demonstrate amply the veniality of all humanity. As Eldred-Grigg reminds us, the rich may be able to avoid taxation, but they cannot escape death, although in a weird way the book gives them a certain immortality, even if it emphasizes it without the first “t”.